How To Survive Attending A PWI As A Black Student

by Nah'ja Washington 

When it was time for me to leave home and begin attending college, I anticipated that this new experience would bring about many changes in my life. As a result, I prepared for these changes. I knew that the classes I was taking would challenge me, so I ordered my books early. I packed just the right amount of clothes that I needed for the semester to ensure that I would not overcrowd my already cramped dorm room. I memorized a map of my college’s campus. However, nothing could have prepared me for one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had on campus. With 67.4% of the student body being white students, Rowan University is a predominately white institution otherwise known as a PWI. Coming from a high school in Newark, New Jersey, I felt as if I was thrust into a world that had no spot for me. I was constantly questioned about my identity and asked what was I, which in turn made me question who was I? I was never made so aware of my blackness until I began to live in a place where being black was uncommon. So how does one navigate their identity and find themselves when it feels as if they are constantly being pushed to be something completely opposite to what they have been for so long? In a place designed for a student to become who they are meant to be, how does a student of color do this without being ridiculed for being exactly who they are?

Find A Mentor 

Finding someone on campus who looks like you and is a position of leadership or working towards a goal can inspire you to do the same. As the popular hashtag on social media says, “#representationmatters.” It is important for students of color to be aware of the opportunities that are available to them, not just the ones that have been previously offered. Often students of color come from areas where there aren’t many opportunities presented for them and look to college as a place where they can create opportunities for themselves. Seeing someone who has successfully done this and achieved their goals encourages students to be better and maybe even become a mentor themselves.

For insight on how to approach this topic I went to someone who I consider a mentor, Temple Jordan. Temple Jordan is the Assistant Director of Mentoring and Inclusion Programs in the office of Social Justice Inclusion and Conflict Resolution here at Rowan. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Jordan also attended a PWI. She was recruited to play basketball at Indica College. When asked about the experience of attending a predominately white institution, Jordan responded “Every institution is a PWI; our whole world is that way. At college, you still live in a white world; there’s just a different set of rules here.” She goes on to say that we expect the people that we interact with to be different here because there is more education and people are more educated. However, this education often leads to questioning. Many people have never experienced blackness on a daily basis if even at all, and the questions that come out of this curiosity can be harmful. “How did you get here? Because blackness isn’t smart or at least that’s what the images I’ve seen on T.V. have provided me with.”

Jordan noted that attending a PWI at this time in the year of 2017, in Trump’s America, is especially different than it would have been two years ago. “All the stuff we thought was going away has been asked to come out and you have to decide who you are in this environment where it may be easier to be anyone else.” Her advice?

Be Yourself

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken," Jordan spoke softly with a smile. “Literally everyone else is taken,” she repeated. It’s so easy to be someone who you are not in order to fit in, make yourself smaller, more palatable to feel more accepted. But at the end of the day, all you have is yourself and college is only four years. You have to deal with whoever you decide to be for the rest of your life.

Find Your Safe Space (Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?)

Find a space that doesn’t make being yourself feel so hard. Understand that you are not alone in your experiences, other people have gone through the same thing or are currently going through it. Often people of color flock to people who look like them as they find that they share the same life experiences and have similar backgrounds. This topic of self-segregation has been discussed on several platforms such as the book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?”. However, your safe space does not have to be one made up of people who look like you, always do whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.

Don’t Be Afraid To Call People Out

If you are put in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, speak on it. Speak out! Don’t mute your voice out of fear of being portrayed as “the angry black person” stereotype. There are going to be times when you are going to be challenged, always do what you feel is right.

You Are Not The Spokesperson For Your Entire Race.

People of color have a double consciousness; they are aware of who they actually are, while also being aware of how others see them. This double consciousness and the fear of being who people think you are as a result of your skin color can cause students of color to act in different ways to prove that they are not the stereotypes that have been laid out for them, especially in an environment where someone may have never met someone that looks like you before. But just know that although it may feel as if you have the history of all of your ancestors on your back every time you enter a classroom, know that it is just you and whoever you are. Whatever you do your ancestors would be beyond proud of what you accomplish.

You Are Going To Be The Only Student Of Color In One Of Your Classes, Know You Deserve To Be There

At least once in your college career, you’re going to walk into one of your classes and be the only person who looks like you. It may be awkward at times, especially if your professor asks you a question about black history because he thinks you’re the only person who will know the answer. (This actually happened to me freshman year). But you can not allow instances like this to derail you from your success. You deserve to be in that classroom just as much as anyone else, so walk in with your head held high!

Remember Why You Started

Remember why you came to college in the first place. To learn, to grow, to be better! Never let anyone or yourself get in the way of you achieving this. Make these four years the best they can be.